That familiar children’s rhyme is here not as an early reference to the eating of curds! Experts tell us that honour belongs to recorded references to ‘dahi’ in ancient Indian texts that date back to 500 years before the start of the Christian era (B.C.E. as it is often referred to these days!). Medicinal writings from the period mention it as a remedy for stomach ailments. Does that mean, as some like to claim, that our ancestors were quite possibly the first humans to ‘create’ curds or ‘dahi’ as we call it? Am not quite sure of how one proves such claims, but i do know that we have an old tradition of this milk-product being a part of our daily diet. Our forefathers may not have known scientific facts like “live and active cultures” or the names of the micro-organisms that convert milk to curds during fermentation; all they understood was that milk thus transformed was good for digestion and so it was made a part of our food-tradition.
In our homes we are all familiar with that routine task of ‘setting’ milk at night. It seems a pretty unexceptional chore—warm some milk, add a spoon or so of old dahi, (basically to allow the bacteria in the old dahi to get to work and transform it) cover and keep it aside (preferably overnight) and voila your bowl of good health is ready! It’s not rocket-science really, but when i started doing it on my own, i discovered there are quite a few variables that can thwart your attempts. The kind of milk you use is a huge factor ~ the less ‘toned’ the milk, the better the dahi. The starter-curd should be ‘alive’ too; the commercial variety generally doesn’t work for once the fermentation is complete, it is processed to kill all micro-organisms. The amount of old curd you use should be neither too less (it won’t set) or too more (it’ll turn sour). The same goes for the heating of the milk ~ ensure it is neither too warm, nor too cold! In most parts of our country, the extreme weather has a say too. Your technique for winter has to vary from what you use in summer. And then there are ‘local’ factors ~ like the time when we moved into a new house upon my husband’s transfer to another town. The maid who lived in the attached servant quarter started working for us and told me the very first day that the kitchen was jinxed and i would never be able to set milk there!! To me it seemed like a ploy on her part to avoid doing the task but when her ominous words proved true a couple of times, i had to seriously evaluate the problem. The place was a small hill station in the Nilgiri mountains of South India, and we soon figured out that the culprit was a huge window next to the kitchen shelf. Its shutters were slightly warped so it did not shut tight and a cold breeze wafted in through the night. All one had to do was find a warmer, more sheltered spot and we were back in the milk-setting business!! A new piece of information that recently came to my attention is that the starter-bacteria one uses also attracts micro organisms which are in the immediate atmosphere and so the taste of dahi can vary from household to household and place to place!
Little wonder then most of us, specially the younger generation, prefer to just buy the ready stuff available in every neighbourhood store. It helps that it is easily available. It also helps that you now can buy the ‘probiotic’ stuff where living micro-organisms (the good and beneficial bacterial-strains) are added after the heat processing, thereby restoring all its healthful attributes. The current global rage in this food category of course is the exotic-sounding ‘Greek Yoghurt’. When i first heard of it and tried to figure out what it referred to, i was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was nothing but what we call “hung-curd”~ ordinary dahi that has had the water drained away so that milk solids remain. It’s a process i was introduced to by a Maharashtrian friend for making ‘shrikhand’. To drain all you need is a muslin cloth stretched over a tall vessel (a rubber band can be used to keep it in place). Keep it in the refrigerator for a couple of hours and your ‘Greek yoghurt’ is ready. Add some chopped fresh fruit and fruit-pulp (mango being the all time favourite here!) and it turns into a delicious dessert.
The fad is now spreading in our cities too with advertisements touting it as the ‘healthier snack’ that addresses your ‘choti-si-bhook’. (No surprise then that you find those little tubs of Epigamia and Grekyo stored in the refrigerators at the homes of your kids!)
How much of the “healthy-tag” is compromised by the sweeteners and artificial flavours added to them ~ such issues are never part of the marketing hype! As usual i wonder why we always need Western endorsements to help us realise the value of our centuries old traditions~
(A small footnote (which the teacher in me could not resist!!) about the ‘curd vs curds’ debate…both are correct and usually we always ask someone whether they would like to have ‘curds’. The general rule being that when you use it before a noun you have to use the word ‘curd’ and not ‘curds’… e.g. curd-rice anyone? Perhaps that’s why just calling it yoghurt (as the Americans do) is so much simpler!!)